Clive Wilson on how to design a purposeful organisation: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Wilson, CliveClive Wilson is a writer, speaker, facilitator and business coach. He is a director of Primeast, a learning and development company based in the beautiful town of Harrogate in the county of North Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, some 220 miles north of London.

Clive’s latest book, Designing a Purposeful Organization:how to inspire business performance beyond boundaries, was published by KoganPage (February 2015).

Primeast works primarily in the oil and gas, power, pharmaceutical and technology industries as well as with the United Nations and other agencies in Southern Africa to facilitate the sustainable development of some of the world’s poorest nations.

He has spoken or facilitated workshops worldwide on strategic alignment and talent leadership, and his clients have included Exxon Mobil, Novartis, and Celgene, a biotechnology company located in New Jersey. In recent years, with his passion for purposeful change, he has facilitated workshops and spoken at conferences in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Australia.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Designing the Purposeful Organization?

Wilson: There are a few ways I could answer this. First, at a personal level, we are all consumers of the services of organisations and many of us work there. So making organisations purposeful enriches our lives as employees and as consumers. As a practitioner, I have written quite a few short texts describing the work of Primeast. My colleagues encouraged me to take the time to do justice to my writing with the support of a high-calibre publisher. Kogan Page came highly recommended and I have to say that working with the team there has been an inspiration. I started writing in October 2013 and completed the first draft by July 2014. As you know the first books came off the press for February 2015. In terms of a deeper “Why?” I truly believe purpose is a topic we all need to know more about, not just in business but in every aspect of life. To understand purpose is to understand the creative power of the universe. What could be more exciting? In corporate terms alignment to purpose is probably the most effective source of high performance, something every organisation craves in one form or another.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Wilson: Yes, two chapters took an even more profound turn than I expected. The first chapter on “purpose” made me realise how little we understand it. Most people tend to think of corporate purpose in its singularity. It is anything but. Purpose, like most things, depends on who’s doing the observing and where they’re standing at the time. Also, the power of “getting to why” in its most inspirational form is so exciting. Just when we think we understand why we’re here, someone asks another “Why?” or gives a perspective we hadn’t thought of and our whole world changes.

Similarly with “success” in chapter seven. I always used to regard success as something deeply personal. Whilst that may be the case in many circumstances, it actually took a journey into stem cell biology for me to realise that each one of us is a community of some seventy trillion cells living in unity. This community has learned consciousness and hence a sense of success at the “me” level. So it is with teams and organisations. Through dialogue and appreciation, we can learn to be collectively conscious of success at that higher and more powerful level. So, for example, team success is both a set of outcomes and a shared felt sense of achievement. This rarely happens by accident.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Wilson: With the exceptions I spoke about in answer to your last question, the narrative is pretty well what has built up in my head in consultation with my colleagues over the last couple of decades. However, the finished article is way better than I expected. This is mainly due to my colleagues and clients at Primeast who diligently read each chapter and inspired me with their suggestions and contributions. Some of the most profound suggestions came from the long-serving members of the team who have practiced experiential learning for nearly thirty years. They helped me to realise that any text worthy of the Primeast name and brand would need to be brought alive with case studies, exercises, activities, reflective space and enticements to further reading. Each chapter is peppered with such relevant diversions, many offered by my colleagues. This is truly a Primeast team effort and gives the reader just a glimpse of how we serve the world of work.

Morris: When did you first become keenly interested in design thinking?

Wilson: I think I stumbled into design by accident. My interest was always in people-centred leadership and change. It was only when I realised that our “conditions for success” constituted the design of a “purposeful organisation” that I knew we had an OD book in the making. By the way, my first proposal to Kogan Page had the subtitle and title the other way round. Their wisdom encouraged me to make “Inspiring performance beyond boundaries” (which had previously been the title of a keynote Russell Evans and I delivered to ATD in Houston) the subtitle and not the main title. I hope that makes sense.

Morris: Here’s a two-part question. What are the most common misconceptions about design thinking? What in fact is true?

Wilson: I believe that people over-complicate organisational design. Organisations, especially global corporates, are by their nature complex. That is to say they are somewhat unpredictable and subject to many variables. However, it is us that makes them as complicated as they often are. We implement new systems without dismantling the old ones. We reinvent the wheel rather than consolidating best practice. The concept of the learning organisation isn’t new and yet few organisations can truly claim to be in that form.

Morris: Of all the design principles, which 2-3 have become of greatest interest and value to you? How so?

Wilson: There is a chapter on “structure” in the book where I draw attention to some key principles about how to structure an organisation – mainly about simplicity. However, you specifically ask what interests me. The first is naturally “purpose” – the focus for all design. I’ve already said quite a bit. Then there are some amazing lessons we can learn from the natural world. Fractal mathematics is all about the concept of self-similarity. So if we take any living organism from a single cell right up to an organisation, we can see repeating patterns of what works and what doesn’t. Biomimicry is a related topic that I discovered upon recommendation from one of my book reviewers. Nature has learned some amazing lessons based on millions of years of “R&D”. We do well to look around at our natural world and learn from it.

Morris: In my review of your brilliant book for several websites, including three of Amazon’s (US, UK, and Canada), I note that most of the companies annually ranked among those most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those most profitable with the greatest cap value in their industry. What do you make of that?

Wilson: Well, to me, it’s a “no-brainer” if we enjoy our work we will be more likely to go the extra mile. And purpose is the key. Purposeful organisations are likely to be great places to work. Here people are valued and systematically aligned to make a difference – consciously.

Morris: Since the book was published, presumably you have received a great deal of feedback from those who have read it. Which of that feedback has been of greatest interest to you? Please explain.

Wilson: Well naturally Bob, I thoroughly enjoyed your book review. It was detailed, considered and inspiring. However, the review that inspired me the very most was the one by Kelly Goff, one of the world’s greatest practitioners in organisational effectiveness. It is the one we chose to be the foreword in the book. Kelly’s words touched me at a very deep level, moving me quite literally to tears. It was like stepping outside of myself and looking straight into my heart.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, here are questions evoked by several of those passages. First, The purpose-driven organization (Pages 2-3) By what process is that purpose determined?

Wilson: In my view the most powerful way is to have a dialogue with representatives from all key stakeholder groups and preferably in the one space. At Primeast we call this “Purpose Quest”. By sharing their respective purposes and conducting an appreciative inquiry on what they say, there is a good chance that an inspiring purpose that serves everyone will be found. This is should be the primary purpose of the organisation.

Morris: The power of focus (13-14) For example?

Wilson: This primary purpose is the focal point and alignment to this creates energetic performance and reduces the chance of wasted energy. It also provides clarity of brand. I’ve known clients drop activities that really don’t serve them once their purpose is clarified.

Morris: Getting to the heart of purpose (14-17) What seems to be the greatest barrier to doing that?

Wilson: The greatest barrier is failing to recognise the importance of purpose. Hopefully the first chapter of the book will convince every reader of the value of taking purpose seriously and investing in it. Mediocre purposes do not serve us.

Morris: The granularity of purpose (22-27) How so “granularity”?

Wilson: Everything in an organisation should have a clear purpose with conscious line of sight to the primary purpose. Once managers understand this, they seek purpose for everything, every team, every piece of equipment and every conversation (for example).

Morris: Defining vision (35-40) What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind?

Wilson: This is controversial but I’m not a fan of short “aspirational” visions such as being the best…. To me a vision is something we see in colour and detail. It’s worth investing time to correlate the vision with everyone involved in the journey. The book says much more on how to do this. Having clarity on every aspect of the vision gives clear direction and allows sub-visions to emerge at every level. This is another example of fractals – as we get close to the sharp end of the business, there is more detail in the vision and less breadth. Overall the “size” of vision (eg how long it takes to describe it) will be similar.

Morris: Cue the “learning organization” (72-75) What are its defining characteristics?

Wilson: A learning organisation is one where people take time to define the best way to do things and there is a culture of continuous improvement. This requires people to share best practice and to be open to critique in the best interests on the organisation. My chapter on “engagement” explores this concept further.

Morris: The power of culture (120-127) For better or worse?

Wilson: If I understand you correctly Bob, you’re suggesting that a constructive culture tuned to purpose is part of the successful recipe whereas a defensive culture can be the cause of demise. This is absolutely so and is well evidenced in several works including Kotter and Heskett’s “Corporate Culture and Performance” which studies the performance of American companies over a twelve year period. Thankfully there are now well-established methods for measuring the culture of an organisation and even the one it needs to deliver its vision. The book reviews some of these methods, including my favourite methods from Barrett Values Centre and Human Synergistics.

Morris: Leadership and its impact on culture (128-134) For better or worse?

Wilson: The style of leadership practiced in an organisation sets the tone for the prevailing culture. It is also the route to successful change. During most Primeast culture change programmes we provide leaders and change agents (informal leaders) with 360 degree appraisals of their style which can be directly held alongside the current and target cultures. This provides a focus for the coaching conversation and the opportunity to leverage the leaders ability to have a positive impact.

Morris: The culture of a learning organization (141-145)

Wilson: As suggested earlier, a learning organisation needs to be a place of trust, empowerment and selflessness, with people placing the success of the organisation before their personal needs. This is generally referred to as a constructive culture where a focus on achievement, job satisfaction, coaching and teamwork are typical features.

Morris: A 10-step guide: Targeting and achieving powerful results (152-167) Which is the most difficult step to complete? Why?

Wilson: I struggle to choose between two of the steps, one right at the beginning and one close to the end (steps one and nine).

The first step is to make sure purpose is well-understood, balanced and harmonised. Technically this isn’t difficult. It’s just about bringing stakeholders together, sharing their purposes and finding inspiring common ground. Emotionally this isn’t easy. First it requires people to be open to the views of others and to listen appreciatively without judgement. Second, it requires what Robert Kegan and others describe as the highest level of leadership where leaders have the ability suspend their personal interests in support of a greater good.

Step nine is about consciously responding to results. This may not seem to be difficult. Surely it means if we underperform, then we need to put our foot on the gas and if we exceed our targets then all is well. That’s the reason I use the word “consciously”. Results simply track our progress to a predetermined destination, be it financial, safety, quality or geographic reach (for example). What we need to consider is what the results are telling us individually and collectively and against the current and forthcoming context. This requires wisdom and dialogue. It may even be that the vision is no longer appropriate. Maybe over-performance requires a bigger or different vision. And underperformance could point to a flawed strategy and the need to innovation. Results should always be followed by “What is this telling us, given the current situation….?”

Morris: Providing structures for success (182-185) For example?

Wilson: Early I proposed that success is both a feeling and an outcome. And now I’m talking about structures for success. This may seem contradictory. But I also suggested that success needs to be shared and understood if a collective sense of success is to arise. Therefore structure is helpful. First to gain clarity on what is important to people. I suggest techniques such as the Personal Values Assessments offered by Barrett Values Centre. And we can also bring structure into the systematic sharing of personal success to accelerate the evolution of a team purpose.

Morris: Successful teams (187-193) What do all great teams share in common?

Wilson: At Primeast we frequently run an exercise on team development workshops that we internally call “purpose, process and behaviours”. We get sub teams to fill a flip chart with the attributes of any great team they know. We get them to circle everything to do with direction in red, structure in blue and behaviour in green. The conclusion is that everything gets circled. There is nothing else than purpose, process and behaviour. Including of course the process of getting the right people on board in the first place!

Morris: Talent liberation (206-209) Liberation from [begin italics] what [end italics]?

Wilson: I was feeling animated at one conference I spoke at and flippantly used the phrase “talent doesn’t need to be managed – it just needs to be liberated”. The phase talent liberation stuck. Talent needs to liberated from so many things: bureaucracy, micro management, emphasis on competence, over-focus on weakness, limiting beliefs, autocracy…. I could go on. If we could train all managers to be talent facilitators and talent liberators, organisations would go from strength to strength – literally – from the strength of the individual to the collective strength of the organisation.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Wilson: You always do this to me Bob! I’d love to have all the people who centre in the world’s greatest religions and philosophies round to dinner. They each articulated a way of being that emphasises connection to the creative power of the universe. They described it differently but its essence is the same. It seems to me that when we understand the creative power of the universe, we understand purpose. By the way, I’m sure one of the features of conversation over dinner would be the amazement of my guests at how we fight over the differences between what they started rather than treasuring them all as different perspectives on the same phenomenon. Does that sound familiar? Shades of chapter one I suspect.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Designing the Purposeful Organization and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Wilson: Well I hope they begin by calling the author or speaking to one of the Primeast team J. We would first of all check out how satisfied they are with the purpose of the organisation. Have all stakeholder views been fully considered and is the primary purpose as inspiring as it can be? I note your emphasis on personal growth and on professional development thriving. If a CEO were to emphasise these things, they would immediately become critical components of their vision and should sit well with the inspiring purpose. Clarity on the remainder of the vision throughout the organisation is what allows the culture to be systematically engineered to deliver success.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Designing the Purposeful Organization, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Wilson: I’m sorry Bob. The material is complete in its entirety to any organisation from the one-man or woman band to global corporation. Nothing is redundant and nothing can be neglected. However, the most important step in any journey is the first step, so I’d have to say that “starting with why” is the most important lesson. Why does this organisation exist? From all perspectives, what is its purpose and what unites all stakeholders that will inspire performance beyond the normal boundaries of mediocracy?

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Wilson: Bob, I came to this interview fully trusting your expertise. I had no hopes or expectations other than to enjoy the process which I did immensely. Thank you for your valuable service to organisational learning. I hope your readers enjoy this interview as much as I did.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Clive cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Designing the Purposeful Organisation Amazon link

Kogan-Page link

Link to additional KoganPage resources

Primeast link

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